On Tape: President Trump Admits To Downplaying The Pandemic : The NPR Politics Podcast President Trump was aware of the severity of the coronavirus in early February, telling Bob Woodward that it was much more severe than the flu. In public, Trump used the flu comparison in a different way: highlighting the flu's high seasonal death toll compared to the few dozen early cases of coronavirus.

He admitted to Woodward in March that he was intentionally downplaying the pandemic in order to avoid panic.

Those revelations are contained in Woodward's new book Rage.

The United States death toll from the disease will likely top 200,000 by the end of the month.

This episode: campaign correspondent Scott Detrow, White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe, and senior political editor and correspondent Ron Elving.

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On Tape: President Trump Admits To Downplaying The Pandemic

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FRANKIE DICIACCIO: Hey, this is Frankie DiCiaccio (ph) in DeKalb, Ill., where I have just finished filling out my materials to become a 2020 election judge or a poll worker. This podcast was recorded at...


That is a very important job in any year, and especially this year. It is 3:06 Eastern on Wednesday, September 9.

DICIACCIO: Things have possibly, probably, almost certainly, 100% definitely changed by the time you hear this. OK, here's the show.


DETROW: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the presidential campaign.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: And I'm Ron Elving, editor-correspondent.

DETROW: And we're taping this an hour later than we usually do because things certainly changed from what we expected the day to be like today. President Trump knowingly misled the country he leads about the risks of the coronavirus pandemic. That is the top line of Bob Woodward's new book "Fear" (ph) which excerpts began to trickle out from today. On February 7, when there were still fewer than 15 cases diagnosed in the U.S., here is what President Trump told Bob Woodward in an interview. The audio is provided by The Washington Post.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's also more deadly than your - you know, even your strenuous flus. You know, people don't realize - we lose 25,000, 30,000 people a year here. Who would ever think that, right?

DETROW: Now, in public at the time, the president did acknowledge the virus was serious. But he repeatedly told Americans it was going to go away soon. Here he is on February 26.


TRUMP: When you have 15 people and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that's a pretty good job we've done.

DETROW: There are a lot of statements, a lot of tweets, from February and March that are pretty similar to that. But in March, Trump, again, told Woodward in an interview on tape that he was intentionally downplaying the virus.


TRUMP: Well, I think, Bob, really, to be honest with you...

BOB WOODWARD: Sure, I want you to be.

TRUMP: ...I wanted to - I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down...


TRUMP: ...Because I don't want to create a panic.

DETROW: So Ayesha, Ron, here we are seven months later, 190,000 Americans dead. There is no end in sight to this. This seems to count to me, even in the world we live in, as a monumental story and development in the presidential campaign.

RASCOE: I think it really is. And yes, we we live in an era where it seems like there are things happening all the time and does anything really matter? But I think this could matter. And if nothing else, it will be a huge factor in the election going forward. We always knew that the coronavirus and the pandemic and how that plays out would be - have a big effect on the election. And now you have basically the message that former Vice President Joe Biden had been trying to make about President Trump, you know, and his handling of the coronavirus. You have Trump saying it himself, saying, I was playing it down. Now, he says wasn't trying to create a panic. But he says, I wanted to play it down. And this stuff about the flu - it's more deadly than the flu - when he's - over and over again was comparing it publicly and not making that point.

DETROW: Right. And that's a message that sunk in with a lot of his supporters, that this wasn't something to rearrange your life for. Now, Ron, since you reviewed the book for NPR, you're one of, probably at this point, a handful of people in the country who have actually read the full book. Is there any nuance these headlines and quotes are missing, or did this seem to be an intentional decision in the early critical months?

ELVING: It seems to be obviously an intentional decision in the early weeks and months. The book actually begins - the first sentence of the prologue talks about an Oval Office meeting on January - now, we're talking January 28, where the top two people on the National Security Agency team - that is, the National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien and his top deputy - sat there and told the president, this is not only going to be a big deal, this is going to be the biggest challenge of your presidency. And they didn't even need to add, the biggest challenge to your reelection. That was implicit.

So the president sits there. He listens to this. And according to the witnesses who had spoken to Woodward, his head pops up and he's paying attention. It's not like he missed it. And yet, in the days thereafter, he continued to talk the way he did, the way we heard him, the way we all heard him, all the way through February.

On the next to last day of February, he was still saying that the way the Democrats were reacting was just all a hoax. It was just the way that they were picking up something new after impeachment had failed, and that's all there was to it. And the people who were at that rally in South Carolina where he was saying that came away saying they thought the whole thing was a hoax. They thought that the whole virus was a media creation. And that's where we were back as recently as March.

RASCOE: Our colleague, Franco Ordoñez, he pressed White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany about this during the briefing today, about that very scene that you're talking about, Ron.


FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: How is it not misleading for his advisers to tell him and compare this virus potential to the Spanish Flu of 1918, but then for the president to say that this could disappear by April?

KAYLEIGH MCENANY: The president, again, was expressing calm. The president was hopeful that, you know, COVID would - that we would be able to manage this and handle it in a way that we could make it go away as quickly as possible.

DETROW: So you know - so as soon as this story happened, it was probably pretty easy to guess what Joe Biden would have to say about it. He was campaigning in Michigan today, and at the beginning of his speech, he said that the president, quote, "knowingly and willingly lied about the threat this posed to the country for months." He had the information, he knew how dangerous it was. And Biden went on to argue that we are still living throughout the country with the consequences of the White House's decision to downplay this.


JOE BIDEN: This is a recession created by Donald Trump's negligence. And he is unfit for this job as a consequence of it. How many schools aren't open right now? How many kids are starting the new school year the same way they ended the last one - at home? How many parents feel abandoned and overwhelmed? How many front-line workers are exhausted and pushed to their limits? And how many families are missing loved ones at their dinner table tonight because of his failures?

DETROW: And I can imagine we'll be hearing a lot more of these quotes that the president gave Bob Woodward, including most likely, in advertisements in key states very, very soon, if not by the time you hear this podcast, depending where you live. We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we will talk more about this book and what we can and cannot guess about how it will play out in the election.

And we're back. Ron, like I said, you have read the whole book already. There was a lot more material in here aside from how the president has handled the coronavirus. What else jumped out to you?

ELVING: One thing that jumps out is the stepping out of James Mattis, the former defense secretary, who has been extraordinarily reticent and reluctant to criticize the president, even after the manner in which they parted ways, Dan Coats, the former director of National Intelligence who found out he was fired while he was playing golf on one of Donald Trump's courses, and to a lesser degree, some other people, including Rex Tillerson, although we mostly see him through information that seems to be coming from James Mattis. Woodward has a pretty good reputation for making these books stand up, even though there's often controversy about his use of quotations and his attribution policies. So those things I think are eye-catching.

There's also some pretty amazing quotations from Lindsey Graham, who is a big Trump ally in the Senate, a Republican from South Carolina. He talks about weeding out wackos among the president's nominees for federal judgeships, even on the way to confirming 300 such nominees. And he also talks a little bit about how he didn't like the president walking across Lafayette Park after the police on horseback had cleared the park of protesters and standing with a Bible in front of St. John's Church. And the president supposedly said to - according to Lindsey Graham, said to him, the Christians liked it. And Lindsey Graham responded, well, I may not be a good Christian, but I am a Christian, and I didn't like it.

DETROW: Ayesha, we did episode and episode and episode over the last few weeks about how the president was having a lot of success reframing the conversation around these protests, the violence that had sprung out. There's a lot of evidence that may not have been working. But he's really been on the defensive since late last week, that Atlantic story quoting, unlike this book, anonymous sources saying that the president had repeatedly disparaged troops, questioned the point of serving in the military, fighting in wars and now this. We seem to be in a full-on Trump defensive, getting angry about articles about him, you know, period of the campaign.

RASCOE: Yes, and it's not slowing down. And there are questions about whether that law and order message was having the intended impact. But that's definitely the type of conversation that Trump wants to have. He does not want to have a conversation about the handling of the coronavirus unless it's about, you know, a cure or something like that, certainly not rehashing March and April. I mean, and over the summer, I mean, we saw some of his lowest polling marks because of - people were so upset about the handling of the coronavirus.

DETROW: You know, I think we should end on something - an acknowledgment of what we don't know, right? I know that people like to listen to this podcast to get a sense of what's going to happen, what to make sense of things. But there are moments where we just have no idea what's going to happen, right? You could fill up a Bob Woodward-sized book with controversies that really dominated the headlines for a few days and then just seemed to go away or go back into people's preconceptions of this election. Like, we just don't know what effect this is going to have.

RASCOE: We don't. And you know, we're not fortune tellers. And I think that this is a really - I mean, we keep talking about unprecedented and all, but this is really an unprecedented time. And we don't know how much people had already baked in their expectations about - or how they felt about President Trump's handling of the coronavirus. Does this solidify things? Is this something that will, you know, make those very few people who - you know, Mara Liasson always talks about those very few people who are undecided. Will this affect them? We really don't know that. But it is a serious thing.

Obviously, we have almost 200,000 people in the U.S. dead because of the coronavirus, and that is continually - more people are dying. And so we do know that. We know that this has dramatically impacted a generation of children who will likely never be the same because of the educational environment. That is what we do know. This has had a huge impact.

DETROW: Their parents.

RASCOE: Their parents, I'm one of them. This has had a huge impact on this country. And so - but we do not know what will happen.

ELVING: But the other thing to bear in mind is that there is an overload factor here. We've heard from Michael Cohen. We've heard from John Bolton. We've heard from Melania Trump's best friend. We've heard from people who have book after book. And I'm not saying any of them is not legitimate. I'm not saying that they lack reason to write these books. But why are they all coming out right now? Because, obviously, the authors and publishers know that books about Donald Trump are at their maximum marketability at this moment and might the precipitously less marketable if he should lose in November. So we're getting a big rush of them.

Plus, I think a lot of these authors have the very direct purpose - Mary Trump, the niece, the daughter of his older brother, you know, she's really trying to warn the country about this man that she feels she knows very, very well, her uncle. And I think a lot of these authors are trying to bring the same message. It's certainly clear enough in Bob Woodward's conclusion when he says that he has simply reached the conclusion that Donald Trump is not the man for the job.


DETROW: All right, Ron. Thank you for your speed-reading.



ELVING: Wish I could've had it in college.

DETROW: Ron's review of the book, in addition to all of our reporting on it, is up at npr.org. That's it for today. We'll be back in your feeds tomorrow. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the presidential campaign.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, speed-reader.


DETROW: It's a good skill to have. Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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